Worth Its Weight In Old – Perast: A Lost Legacy of Franz Joseph (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #18)

I did not expect to find the old emperor hanging out in Perast. I figured the Montenegrins were long since through with Emperor Franz Joseph (reigned 1848 – 1916). After his death, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed just a couple of years later. Every other successor state in the Habsburg domain beyond Austria banished him to the dustbin of history. While I saw his beloved wife, Queen Elisabeth, immortalized in statuary by the Danube in Budapest and across from the train station in Trieste among other places, the emperor who had ruled for an unfathomable 68 years was nowhere to be seen in the territories which he had once ruled over. This was why seeing Franz Joseph in Perast came as such a surprise.

Montenegro was always a fringe area on the empire’s southern frontier. Historically, it had not been a core land of the crown, but one obtained during the early 19th century. Austrian rule never had the deep roots in Perast that others, such as the Republic of Venice, did. The Venetian influence was on display throughout the town in the old mansions that stood facing the Bay of Kotor. The sunny disposition of the seaside also made Perast seem much more Mediterranean than Mitteleuropa. The town reminded me of southern Europe rather than the middle of it. What could possibly be left of the relatively short rule of Austria-Hungary in Perast? I found the answer in a most unlikely place.

Hanging around – Bust of Emperor Franz Joseph in Perast

Unfinished Business – A Towering Discovery
A stunning view of the Bay of Kotor was the first thing I noticed upon entering Perast. The sparkling blue bay was the ultimate distraction. Once I managed to refocus, my eyes were attracted to St. Nicholas’’ Church. Its 55 meter high bell tower drew my attention as it soared into a piercingly blue sky. The church was a magnetic attraction with its own unique allure. It marked a sort of midpoint in the town and a starting point for my explorations. On this day, the church was not open for viewing. That is not so surprising when you consider that the church has never been finished. What I found surprising was the fact that construction on the church began during the 17th century. Looking at the exterior, it was hard to figure out what had been left unfinished. The church was a formidable stone structure, one that fit in well with the rest of Perast. This grand old edifice rewarded me with several excellent photo opportunities.

As I snapped image after image, I focused on getting photos of the bell tower. This took me to the side of it, where I spotted a bust attached to one side of the wall. It was in between some scaffolding that had been erected for restoration work on part of a wall. Staring at the bust, I did a double take. It was hard to believe, but the mutton chop whiskers and regal visage were unmistakable. It was Emperor Franz Joseph. What the old emperor was doing hanging around – quite literally – on a wall at St. Nicholas’ Church was beyond me. The bust was sculpted out of a rustic red material which gave it a certain sheen of distinction. I studied the bust from several angles, its situation seemed to defy gravity. I could see how it might have been grafted on to the wall, but the fact that it had stayed there for at least a century was nothing short of incredible. Weathering and war had not been able to dispose of the old Emperor’s bust. It had withstood the vagaries of ideology and regime change. It stood as a lasting symbol of a lost empire, one whose death knell was sounded in the Balkans.

Unfinished business – St. Nicholas’ Church in Perast

The Emperor Vanishes – Deceased To Exist
There was something ironic and rather endearing about the bust’s survival. If this had been in Austria, I would have thought nothing of it. In Perast, it was the ultimate outlier, a forgotten artifact worth its weight in old. Busts of Emperor Franz Josef must have been a common sight across the empire during the late 19th and early 20th century. Photos of the Emperor would have been a common sight on posters and postcards as well as in civic buildings. Franz Joseph was the ultimate symbol of Austria-Hungary. A unifying presence for the distant and disparate lands of a political entity which stretched from the Adriatic shoreline to the plains of eastern Galicia (present day western Ukraine). Even though the empire was coming apart at its ethnic seams, Franz Joseph acted as a steadying influence. His visage denoted more than a man. He was the essence of stability and longevity. And then after sixty-eight years on the throne, he was gone.

It would not be long before images, busts and statues of Franz Joseph disappeared right along with the empire. The most famous and revered representative of an empire which no longer existed vanished from the public square, posters, and postcards. He went into missing person mode, as the chapter of history he helped write was ripped out of history books. The supposedly benign emperor was viewed as a historically malignant force by the successor states that were formed from the dissolution of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I. Yugoslavia, the new home for Perast and Montenegro, was more than happy to throw off the Habsburg yoke. The South Slavs now ruled themselves and had little use for those who had repressed nationalist sentiment. Borders changed, flags changed, and forms of government changed. The world of Franz Joseph became an anachronism. Any representations of the emperor disappeared overnight. Oddly, this is the opposite of what happened on the side of St. Nicholas’ Church.

Above and beyond – Looking out from Perast at the Bay of Kotor

A Montenegrin Mystery – Living In Obscurity
For whatever reason, the old emperor had staying power in this small, sequestered area of Perast. The bust’s survival remains a mystery to me and probably always will. Nonetheless, it reminded me of just how far the empire reached and a legacy that has been largely lost. It was in places like Perast where the old emperor still lived in obscurity. There are worse things than having been forgotten, never having been known in the first place is one of them. That was something Franz Joseph never had to worry about, but his legacy is another matter.   

Click here for: Eternal Libations – Kezmarok: The Wooden Articular Church & Pub (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #19)

The Good, The Dramatic & The Ugly – In The Mountains of Montenegro: The Bar To Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #22)

After over an hour of climbing, the train finally found its way to reasonably level ground. We were now deep in the mountains making our way through pine forests that looked much more alive than the spectacularly barren landscape we had just traversed. The forest was a world filled with shadows and intermittent showers of light. I found this landscape much more comforting. Perhaps it was the fact that we were no longer clinging to the edge of a cliff or breathlessly crossing rocky ravines while seemingly suspended on air. There were still hundreds of bridges to cross and tunnels to glide through, but the forests looked vaguely familiar. I had been in this landscape before, albeit on another continent. It looked and felt the mountains of western North Carolina.

Snow began to appear in patches, then covered the ground. The railway was bounded by several inches of snow on either side of the tracks. Nearby flowed the clear waters of an alpine river. The railway route through Montenegro might be termed a tale of three rivers, as the line follows the Moraca, Tara and Lim Rivers. While the terrain here was less spectacular than an hour earlier, it was still entrancingly beautiful. Not far from where the railway ran was the Biogradska Gora National Park, which protects one of the few stretches of primeval forest that still exist in Europe. This was a land that humans largely forgot to inhabit. The railway offered a window into the way much of the world was before the triumph of “civilization.”

A Wintry Outpost - Kolosin

A Wintry Outpost – Kolosin

A Wintry Outpost – Waiting On A Train
Towns were few and far between along this stretch of the line. Kolosin was one of the two largest, a wintry outpost, slumbering beneath the snow. Houses were scattered around the lower reaches of a small mountain. Much larger mountains, growing more spectacular with each successive range, could be seen looming in the distance. Kolasin looked like one of the most peaceful places I had ever seen. This was the opposite of a past checkered with nasty conflicts, first to expunge the Turks, then a recruiting ground and base for World War II partisans. The wounds from previous wars were now hidden away. In the past, Kolosin had not been able to escape history. At present, it was an escape for outdoor enthusiasts and winter sports enthusiasts. Kolosin had excellent road and rail connections that bring tourists to experience its clear mountain air, mineral springs and the remarkable nature which besieges the town on all sides.

The only unsightly thing in Kolosin was its railway station which reminded me of an American truck stop at its most forlorn. Of interest, were three Montenegrin Railway workers, two of which stood bareheaded in the freezing cold. They were indifferently watching the train, probably because they had nothing else to do. One of those three was the sharply dressed stationmaster sporting a red cap. I never cease to be amazed by these stationmasters, looking proper and purposeful while standing in front of an architectural eyesore. Like clockwork, the stationmaster is there to meet the train, never showing anything other than a sense of duty.  It is a job that they are bound and determined to do. These stationmasters are the very definition of pride, both personal and professional.

Waiting On A Train - Railway Workers at Kolosin Station

Waiting On A Train – Railway Workers at Kolosin Station

Intermittent Nightmares – A Stationary Decline
Being on a train in the Balkans amidst a snowy landscape is fertile fodder for the imagination to conjure up a Murder On the Orient Express scenario. The region and a snowstorm both make notable appearances in Agatha Christie’s murderous tale which takes place on a snow trapped train. The elements of mystery, intrigue and danger were all missing from my journeys at this point.  The sun was burning brightly in a clear sky while the snow had fallen days before. There was no chance of being detained by anything other than border procedures. On the other hand, there was precedence for a train along the Bar to Belgrade route being stuck in a snowstorm. In 2011, an avalanche trapped a train close to Kolasin for three days before the passengers could be rescued. I was enjoying this trip, but I could not imagine spending three days trapped in a train car. Eleven hours would be good enough for me.

Beyond Kolosin the train made its way toward the border. Passport control was at Bijela Polje, a town that had another atrocious railway station of concrete and metal trimmed with a sky blue color scheme. It was yet another striking example of Yugoslavia’s old railway stations that left a lasting impression, none of which were good. There was an interesting dichotomy between the landscape and stations all along the route. On one hand there was spectacular nature, on the other contrived artifice. The railway stations did not stand, as much as they loomed. Appearing like an intermittent nightmare, the ghost of a failed economic and political system. They were representatives of a deformed ideology that eventually warped itself into irrelevance. A fortune’s worth of resources, both natural and fiscal had been expended on creating the Bar to Belgrade railway. The exact opposite of the determination and vigor that saw the railway to completion went into the design and construction of its stations.

Leaving Montenegro - The Station at Bijelo Pole

Leaving Montenegro – The Station at Bijelo Pole

A Worrisome Sublimity – Keys To The Kingdom
I always find border crossings to be both sublime and worrisome. Sublime because one side of the border hardly looks any different from the other. I would soon discover this was especially true between Montenegro and Serbia which in many ways – language, religion and culture – are indistinguishable from one another. Worrisome because crossing a border means entering a netherworld. The traveler is in the hands of officials that hold the keys to another kingdom. Whether or not one gets to cross a border depends on a passport issued by an anonymous official back home. This document is then handed to a foreign official the traveler meets for the first and likely last time.

Fortunately, leaving Montenegro was quick and easy. Border officers entered the train, one of them scanned my passport and handed it back to me without so much as stamping it. The officer gave a quick smile and thank you. I was a bit shocked, so much so that I asked if they could at least stamp it. The officer looked pleasantly surprised, took my passport again and had his partner give it a nice, firm stamp. Procedures for the entire train were over in a matter of minutes. That official bit of formality was the way my week long adventure in Montenegro came to an end. It was now time for the beginning of a new one in Serbia.

Beyond Nature’s Limits – Podgorica & Everything After: The Bar To Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #21)

The initial stretch of my Bar to Belgrade train journey was bound to be the dullest. The fantastic scenery would not occur until the train began winding its way up the Moraca River canyon beyond Podgorica. Prior to Podgorica, the one must see natural wonder came into view during the first hour, Lake Skadar. When the worst scenery on a journey is part of a National Park, you know the trip is going to be a great one. As the train rolled by Lake Skadar National Park, I stared out at its glassy waters. A winter stillness had fallen over southern Europe’s largest lake. The lake stretched out onto the horizon. There were no signs of the 270 species of birds that call the lake hom

Skadar looked peaceful and placid, a natural counterpoint to the dramatic mountains rising above in the far distance. The lake soon became an afterthought as the train wound its way along curving shoreline and onward to Montenegro’s capital city. I was interested to see what the station in Podgorica looked like. My hopes were not very high after seeing the stations in Bar and Sutomore. Also, the fact that Podgorica had been bombed into oblivion during World War II meant that the station would almost certainly be modern. Thus, it would likely be one of those post-World War II abominations that can be rightfully deemed Titotecture. I was in for a surprise and not a good one.

Not exactly welcoming – Podgorica Railway Station

Red, White & Rust  – One End Of The Line
Podgorica’s railway station looked like an abandoned budget motel that had been given a fresh coat of ugliness and covered in red, white and rust. The station’s most defining trait was the numerous air conditioning units attached to its exterior. The only other thing of note to be seen outside the station was the large group of people waiting to board the Bar to Belgrade express. The car I was in soon filled to three-quarters capacity. I got the distinct feeling that this was not the tourist train of my imagination, at least not during the winter. It was a way to get from one place to the next in a country that had more remote than known places. During the winter this train was likely the safest option. Traveling along a Montengerin mountain road covered in ice or snow was hazardous duty during the winter. The train was a safer and slower option.

Speed was not something I was concerned with on this journey, but plenty of Montenegrins looking to get around the country were. The Bar to Belgrade train was decidedly lacking in speed. It had slowed considerably since the railway first opened in 1976. The journey from one end of the line to the other only took seven hours back then. That was before Yugoslavia collapsed, as did maintenance of the railways. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s caused damage along the route. In addition, both Serbia and Montenegro suffered grievous blows to their economies during this time which took years to recover. All the while, maintenance of the railway was neglected. Now the journey is advertised as taking eleven hours. Eastern Europeans have told me for years that if you are looking to get somewhere fast avoid trains. Fortunately, I was on vacation so the slowness of the train was a luxury I could afford. Most Montenegrins and Serbians were not so lucky.

Looking into the abyss – The Moraca River Canyon

The River Ride – Edging Along An Abyss
Beyond Podgorica the scenery took a sudden and dramatic turn. The train began to follow the serpentine course of the Moraca River. We were now entering one of the most spectacular stretches of railway in Europe. The half-frozen river grew smaller as the train slowly climbed higher. The surrounding landscape looked like the top of the earth had been scraped bare. It became increasingly rugged and barren. Villages were fewer and fewer. We were entering a no man’s land, the karst landscape where few had dared to venture before the railway was constructed. When the route was being planned, mapping teams were forced to go into this area on horseback. There was no other way to access the terrain. Not surprisingly, this area proved to be the most technically challenging to engineer. It is also one of the most spectacular.

The semi-lunar landscape was austere in the extreme, with scrubby vegetation in the foreground and rugged mountains in the distance. Far below flowed the emerald ribbon of the Moraca River. The train slowly twisted and turned its way deeper into the landscape. A confrontation with the mountains looked imminent. It was about then that I caught a glimpse of the Mala Rijeka viaduct. The name means little river, but it took the highest railway bridge in Europe to get the Belgrade to Bar railway across an abyss that it had carved. I was able to snap a couple of photos of the viaduct from a distance by pressing my phone against the window. The 100,000 ton, four pillared viaduct stands almost 500 meters above the valley floor, a work of art as much as one of engineering.  Below the viaduct was a great chasm filled with rocky protrusions, geologic epochs that had sprouted eons ago. A natural cataclysm had been crossed.

The Great Depression – Reality Of A Railway
Now the train was headed into a wilderness that few had seen before the railway was built. Though astonishingly beautiful, this was a thoroughly inhospitable landscape. One that had been gashed by continuous geological upheavals for millions of years. This all occurred prior to humans ever setting eyes on this natural tumult. Man could never conquer these mountains, only pass through them in the protection of a train car. Sidling along a river, weaving around and over canyons, scaling mountains, all at a leisurely pace seemed so easy.

The reality of this railway was quite different. It took hundreds of thousands of man hours, not a few lives and an indefatigable spirit to allow relatively few people the opportunity to see how beautiful and treacherous Montenegro could be. I was impressed by what I saw. At the same time, I was depressed by the knowledge that the train would soon be leaving Montenegro behind. The border could not be far away, but what were borders in a world like this. Nature has a way of setting limits, the Belgrade to Bar railway went beyond them.

Click here for: The Good, The Dramatic & The Ugly – In The Mountains of Montenegro: The Bar To Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #22)

Titotecture – The Bar To Belgrade Railway: Mountains & Monstrosities (A Balkan Affair #20)

I awoke before sunrise on the day of my departure from Bar. I was filled with nervous excitement. This was the day when I would take one of Europe’s most famed railway routes all the way through to Belgrade. Since I would be sitting on the train for eleven consecutive hours, I decided to go for an early morning walk before sunrise. This took me around the train station perimeter which was calm and eerily quiet. It did not seem like a train station or a railyard at all. The silence may have had something to do with the fact that it was Christmas morning in Montenegro. I had decided to ride the rails on the Orthodox world’s most important holiday. I was somewhat surprised that the train was going to travel. I wondered if any other foreigners would be taking the same journey.

When I turned up at the station twenty minutes before departure, there were a handful of people beginning to board the train. This was a far cry from May 29, 1976 when Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Tito completed the first journey along the entire route. When he arrived at Bar there were 20,000 Yugoslav citizens who euphorically cheered his presence. The same scene had been repeated all along the railway, beginning in Belgrade where Tito had departed the day before. A crowd estimated somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people lined the railway to catch a glimpse of Tito’s train taking the inaugural journey. All the train stations along the route were covered in decorative bunting.

The occasion was cause for celebration. A project twenty-five years in the making was finally complete. The capital of Yugoslavia was now connected to the Adriatic coast. In his speech at Bar, Tito, the consummate dictator, referred to the railway’s importance for the Yugoslav military. Tito also promoted the project as the fruits of a successful cooperation among the Yugoslav people. What he did not say was that the state governments of Serbia and Montenegro’s had financed two-thirds of the railway and almost all the construction from 1970 until its completion. A people’s bond raised a great deal of the capital necessary to see the project finished.

The ultimate Balkan railway journey – Bar to Belgrade timetable

A Monumental Undertaking – From The Mountains To The Sea
I found the train car which corresponded to the number on my ticket. It had a gray and white exterior with random acts of graffiti sprayed along the side of it. The car looked suitably modern, but otherwise nondescript. I soon found my seat though it hardly mattered. The car was only about a quarter full. There did not seem to be any foreigners other than myself aboard at this point. My research had given me the impression that the train was so slow and antiquated that only foreigners looked forward to taking it. On this day, it was as much a local train as an international one going to Belgrade. The train’s first major stop would be in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. Later I would see that several of the people aboard had availed themselves of this option.

I would later discover that the railway line is much more than a glorified passenger and tourist route. Over 60 trains a day travel along the line, carrying imports and exports between Serbia and Montenegro. The port at Bar is a link not only to the Adriatic, but the wider Mediterranean world. The railway’s economic ties reach far beyond tourism. Transporting goods and commodities across 476 kilometers of some of the most diverse terrain in Europe is a monumental logistical undertaking that thanks to the railway occurs thousands of times each year. Within minutes after leaving the station, the train began its ascent on the outskirts of Bar. We passed through woodland, followed by brief glimpses of the Adriatic.

Titotecture – Sutomore Train Station

I watched with my face close to the window, trying to take in the beautiful seascape, shimmering silver and blue beneath the radiant sunlight. The train’s leisurely pace made the seascape glide by the window in super slow motion. It was a tantalizing image, one that passengers traveling the opposite way along the line must see as their ultimate reward for such a long journey. I snapped a photo during one of my last glimpses of the Adriatic. On the placid sea, a single ship floated effortlessly. The image was the first of many remarkable ones to come on this journey. Another image along this stretch of the railway was less inviting. It seemed like we were just getting started when the train slowed for the railway station at Sutomore. This station made the one at Bar look like something designed by Michelangelo.

Tunneling Under – Confronting Obstacles
The station at Sutomore was one of those socialist realist inspired concoctions that doubled as a bad ideological statement. The structure helped me coin a new portmanteau word, Titotecture in honor the Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito. Loosely defined, this was an architectural style aesthetically unpleasing, constructed mainly of concrete and made to look like the set of a horror film. Titotecture was the realization of a mind numbing, bunker mentality that manifested itself in unsightly architectural monstrosities. It is hard to imagine how Yugoslavia could build both the Bar to Belgrade railway line and the Sutomore station. The former an astonishing accomplishment, while the latter was an exercise in stylistic atrocity. The railway looked like a case where opposites attracted. A fantastical work of engineering passing by a vacuous hulk of functional nothingness. The paradox that was Yugoslavia could still be found on the cold steel rails of this line.  

Last look at the Adriatic – On the Bar to Belgrade Railway

Before long the train began to pass through a tunnel. This was not just any tunnel, but by far the longest train tunnel I had ever been through. The Sozina Tunnel stretches for a length of 6,172 meters, the longest tunnel on the entire length of the railway. It is by no means an aberration. The easiest way to confront the mountainous terrain along the route was to bore tunnels through them. For example, the Sozina Tunnel traversed the coastal range by going partly beneath them. The railway line’s 254 tunnels stretch a combined 114 kilometers (71 miles) or 24% of the railway’s total length. Passing through the tunnel was exhilarating. It was a feeling that I was about to become uniquely familiar.

Click here for: Beyond Nature’s Limits – Podgorica & Everything After: The Bar To Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #21)

Looking In The Mirror – Stari Bar: A Reflection of Ourselves (A Balkan Affair #18)

Bar was quite modern, the result of its post-1979 earthquake reconstruction. The streets were swept clean, the high-rise apartment buildings looked much more presentable than others I had seen in the Balkans and the crosses above the Orthodox Churches sparkled in the sunlight. There was not much old to be found in modern Bar which stretched outward from the waterfront. By this point in my Eastern European travels I did not find this newness to be very surprising. It has been my experience on more occasions than I can now recount, that the idea of “old” Europe is as much a myth as it is a reality. Much of Bar was younger than me. It felt like a seaside city with no idea of the past. Besides King Nikola’s late 19th century summer palace, which I never saw due to a confrontation with a pack of wild dogs ferociously guarding a street corner, modern Bar offered very little of interest to me. On the other hand, Stari Bar (Old Bar) was well worth the time I took to visit it.

An Old Lifeline - The Stari Bar Aqueduct

An Old Lifeline – The Stari Bar Aqueduct

An Invisible Border – Turkey In Europe
Stari Bar is only five kilometers from Bar’s city center, but architecturally, culturally and historically it belongs to another era. The site’s location atop Londza Hill is symbolic of a time when topography offered as much protection as weaponry. The hilltop locale is all but impregnable on three sides. The terrain beyond it is increasingly harsh as it gives way to mountains. The bus ride from Bar wound slowly upward through the city streets past olive trees and through quiet neighborhoods. Here was the unknown Europe, the fringes with benefits. Before long, I sighted my first minaret in Montenegro, a reminder that the country still has a sizable Muslim population. The Ottoman past came much closer after the bus reached its final stop at the beginning of Stari Bar.

I disembarked on the edge of a different time and place, a million kilometers culturally from where I had begun my journey 15 minutes earlier. I crossed an invisible border, the place where east meets west. I had been here before in Sarajevo and Mostar, now Stari Bar was the stand in for what had once been known as Turkey in Europe. The clash of cultures had died over a century ago, the guns long since silenced and assimilation was no longer a dirty word, only a process. I began to walk along a single street that led up a very steep incline. On either side, Turkish music played, a few men sat at cafes sipping coffee, shops sold an incredible array of souvenirs and restaurants offered the best of Balkan food. Stari Bar was bipolar, part of it was a living community, the other part was one of the great medieval historical sites in the Balkans.

A Medieval Church - Along the streets of Stari Bar

A Medieval Church – Along the streets of Stari Bar

Aged & Ageless – The Myth of Invincibility
A map at the entrance to Stari Bar showed what the walled town looked like in its prime. There were multi-storied stone houses, elegant bastions, soaring towers of varying sizes all packed together in an incredibly dense environment and threaded through with serpentine streets. The whole was surrounded by towering walls, an impressive complex that would have rivaled anything Dubrovnik or Kotor may have offered sans the seashore. Several South Slavic entities ruled over Stari Bar during the Middle Ages. It later fell under Venetian rule for over a century until the Ottomans conquered it in 1571 and held onto Stari Bar until the latter half of the 19th century. Churches were turned into mosques and one palace was even converted into a Turkish bath during this time. The Ottomans held Stari Bar longer than any before them, but they and the walled city finally met their match when a Montenegrin force in 1878 placed it under siege and literally exploded the myth of its invincibility. Nearly two months of heavy bombardment, then a massive incendiary explosion that disabled the city’s aqueduct and consequently its water supply resulted in Ottoman surrender.

Stari Bar has never been the same since the siege. From that point in history right up through today it has largely been a ruin. One worth well more than the two Euros I paid to visit the site. On this mid- winter’s day, a cloudless, infinitely blue sky of piercing brightness and impenetrable depth provided cover for an entire world. The sun caused the stone walkways and ruined walls to glow. The grass among them turned to tufts of burning gold. The layout of the site hardly mattered as I picked my way around the ruins. Semi restored structures such as palaces and churches looked like they could stand forever, though the detritus scattered around them showed otherwise. Their slate gray and dirty white facades looked weathered, but stout. These buildings and adjacent ruins were as much a part of the landscape as the hill upon which they stood. Stari Bar was both aged and ageless.

Signs of Progress - Ruins in Stari Bar

Signs of Progress – Ruins in Stari Bar

The Future Age – A Thinly Veiled Curiosity
I made my way to the walls where I looked out through one of the arched portals towards the mountains. They looked stark and formidable. Stari Bar was molded in the same image as the landscape in which it stood. Beyond the walls I could see the aqueduct constructed so many centuries ago. A vital line that supplied it with water and by extension life. Once this link was broken, so was Stari Bar. I continued wandering past walls partly covered in ivy, nature’s tapestry now covering the works of man. Light and shadow were sharply defined. It was mid-afternoon, but time had little meaning in Stari Bar.

All the previous ages that had contributed to the development of Stari Bar had collapsed and so would this one. A reconstructed Ottoman clock tower rose above the ruins. It did not work and why would it, time had long since lost its meaning here. I didn’t have to know a thing about the history of Stari Bar to know this is how it always ends. In a future age, people will walk through our own ruins and stare at them with thinly veiled curiosity the way I did at those in Stari Bar. What they may or may not realize is that these ruins are a mirror that reflects the future. And in that mirror the image looking back at us is always our own.

Click here for: Tunnel Vision – The Bar to Belgrade Railways: Yugoslavia’s Greatest Achievement (A Balkan Affair #19)

Making Connections – Kotor to Bar By Bus: The Exceptional In The Unexceptional (A Balkan Affair #17)

It was all downhill from Kotor. At least that is what it felt like as I traveled down the Montenegrin coastline to my next destination, the port city of Bar. I expected to see some beautiful scenery along the way. Unfortunately, the hour and a half long bus trip was a letdown. Several of the towns were situated in beautiful seafront settings, but other than the idyllic resort islet of Sveti Stefan, everything else was unmemorable. Travel is often this way. I have spent many of my journeys with that childlike voice in my head asking, “when will we get there? or “Is that it?” Much of the time I find myself searching for the exceptional in the unexceptional. This journey was no different from so many others. Only later would I discover why this stretch of highway was lined with so many forgettable towns. The coast between Kotor and Bar had been laid waste on April 15, 1979 while enduring ten of the most terrible seconds in modern history.

Seaside Attraction - Sveti Stefan

Seaside Attraction – Sveti Stefan (Credit: Marcin Konsek)

Ten Terrible Seconds – The Consequences of a Cataclysm
Earthquakes are notoriously hard to predict. They are sometimes preceded by tremors, but just as often by periods of inactivity. A pattern of smaller earthquakes sometimes leads to larger ones or nothing at all. Then there are those times when both large and small earthquakes are frequently detected. That was the case in 1979 throughout Montenegro, especially along its nearly 300 kilometer long coastline. No seismologist could have possibly predicted what would befall the area when over 10,000 temblors were registered in a single year. Many of these were barely perceptible, while some were deemed powerful enough to be felt or cause minor damage. One earthquake stood out from the rest. It turned out to be the proverbial big one with predictably cataclysmic consequences.

At 7:19 a.m., a magnitude 6.9 earthquake occurred 15 kilometers off the coast between Bar and Ulcinj (close to the Montenegro-Albania border). From deep within the bed of the Adriatic Sea the earth began to shake violently. Shockwaves emanated outward with incredible force. The temblor lasted only ten seconds, or the same amount of time it probably took you to read the last three sentences. The earthquake’s brevity was inversely proportional to the amount of damage it inflicted on coastal communities. Budva and Kotor were left in ruins, while Bar suffered such bad damage that much of it had to be rebuilt. This earthquake was the ultimate in cruel irony, a wrecking ball from the ground up in one of Europe’s most enchanting areas. A mere ten seconds changed the lives of thousands forever. That catastrophic moment is still remembered to this very day throughout the country.

As the bus wound its way down the coastline, I looked out towards the Adriatic. Its surface was placid, the water benign. It was hard to believe that a potential apocalypse was forever lurking just offshore. It was lurking inland as well. The highway we were on would not stand a chance against an earthquake similar in seismic scale to the 1979 temblor. Hundreds of kilometers of highway had been damaged or destroyed in a matter of seconds back then. Buildings did not hold up any better causing 100,000 to be left homeless. All this seemed as unimaginable to me as the fact that everything had been rebuilt. There was not a single trace of the 1979 earthquake discernible to the eye unless you knew what to look for. Every modern bungalow, smooth strip of roadway or high-rise hotel was a victory over destruction.

The result of ten terrible seconds - 1979 earthquake damage in Kotor

The result of ten terrible seconds – 1979 earthquake damage in Kotor (Credit: Boka News)

Trainspotting – Catching A Ride
One of the greatest post-earthquake construction projects along the Montenegrin coastline just happened to be my destination on this bus journey, the city of Bar. It had been completely devastated in 1979, but this led to the construction of the city that stands today, including port facilities which have proved vital to Montenegro’s economy. Bar is a transportation hub for a small nation, with ferries westward, trains eastward and the main north-south Adriatic Highway passing through the city. Every one of these transport options connects Bar to another country, whether it be Italy, Bosnia, Serbia or Croatia.

My first impression of Bar was that it did not feel like a city, more like an overgrown seaside town. If not for its international transport connections I would not have come here. The same could be said for many others. I was traveling to the city because of its role as a terminus along the famous Belgrade to Bar railway line. This had been my main impetus for traveling to Montenegro in the first place. I had told so many friends and family about this unique railway journey that I felt duty bound to follow through with my plan to ride it during the dead of winter. Otherwise, my trip would have seemed incomplete.

Starting Point - Bar Railway Station

Starting Point – Bar Railway Station

Sprinkled With Magic – Words To Live By
I arrived at Bar’s unsightly bus station which might best be described as a thousand cigarette burns, spilled coffee and exhaust smoke wafting through the parking slots. I imagined that this was the kind of place that attracted people who make a virtue out of loitering. Fortunately, I had arranged a transfer to my accommodation. A medium sized woman with dark hair and a zesty accent approached me. When she spoke my name, I became extremely proud. This was the first time I remembered hearing someone say it to me on this trip. Can there be a better greeting than hearing one’s name pronounced back to them in a foreign land? There is a certain magic in being acknowledged. Perhaps it was because acknowledgment implies acceptance. This was instant kinship by name calling.

The woman was the proprietor of my accommodation. She was extremely helpful in getting me checked in to my apartment for the night. She had little other choice since it was attached to her house. The apartment was in a great location for anyone wanting to take the Bar to Belgrade train. I could walk to the train station in two minutes. My hostess told me there was plenty of time to purchase tickets for the next day’s journey so there was no need to rush. As soon as she left, impatience got the better of me. I headed straight to the station for one reason, I could hardly wait for the next day to arrive.

Click here for: Looking In The Mirror – Stari Bar: A Reflection of Ourselves (A Balkan Affair #18)

Short Fuses In Kotor & Bar–  Implosions & Explosions in the Balkans  (A Balkan Affair #16)

The Kotor Bus Station had come alive, not with the sound of engines or passengers clamoring to climb aboard buses. Instead, explosions began erupting all around the station. The metal canopies above the platforms magnified every boom. The noise gave a sensation that peril was close at hand. This was quite true. Two pranksters were holding everyone hostage in the fireworks funhouse they had spontaneously created. The once scattered groups of passengers began to coalesce around one another. One group took to the station’s waiting room, while others tried to ignore what was becoming increasingly obvious, the pranksters had no intention of letting up. At least not until their stash of fireworks was exhausted. One of the pranksters grew increasingly bold, soon he was not just lighting fireworks, but tossing them around. Including one close to the feet of a man smoking a cigarette. Within seconds there was a boom. The intended victim stopped smoking long enough to look around for the culprit. Spying the prankster in a matter of seconds, he decided to ignore the antics. I wish that I could have done the same.

Explosive Beauty - Kotor

Explosive Beauty – Kotor

The Montenegrin Mentality – Enjoy Rather Than Endure
Standing at the Kotor Bus Station, while watching fireworks be thrown around like they were candy, was both alarming and instructive. While the situation could have resulted in fisticuffs or bodily harm, it instead became a frivolous example of an attitude that I secretly found admirable. The two men tossing the fireworks did it with barely disguised glee. While those of us who were enduring the amateur pyrotechnics did not enjoy it at the time, I could not help but think that many approved of their antics. On one hand, the brazen attitude of the primitive pyrotechnicians was a little scary for those who were almost caught in the crossfire. Conversely, nothing would have given me greater pleasure than if I would have had the courage to join in on the fun. They were having a good time so why not the rest of us. Something told me that living beside the Adriatic Sea and specifically in Montenegro would make most people take a more relaxed and cheerful attitude towards life. Kotor, like Montenegro, is the kind of place where life is to be enjoyed rather than endured.

Kotor enjoys a charmed life. I like to think of it as the Adriatic Coast’s California, where the spectacular natural beauty and languid rhythms of life set the populace at ease. How could Kotor’s inhabitants do otherwise? They are surrounded by towering mountains on one side and a beautiful bay on the other. Squeezed in between is a medieval Old Town par excellence.  The side effects of such a setting make, at least on the surface, people nonchalant and seemingly indifferent to stress. The latter was on display at the Kotor bus station the day of my departure. Tossing fireworks was a way to get a good laugh. Throwing them near an unsuspecting person was guaranteed fun. The victim may have wanted to retaliate, but he did not appear to care. First surprise, then a bit of concern, followed by feigned anger and then indifference. He must have realized that the fireworks were thrown all in the name of good fun, adding a bit of drama to the day. Fireworks seemed to be a national pastime in Montenegro, offering shock therapy to the bus station and the nation at large.

To be enjoyed rather than endured - Kotor

To be enjoyed rather than endured – Kotor

Coming In Hot – One Explosion After Another 
The week I spent in Montenegro was accompanied by one explosion after another. It started in the smoky streets of Cetinje where kids were constantly setting off fireworks. It was nothing to hear booms and bursts from midday to midnight. Sometimes while walking the streets of Cetinje, I would see fantastic bursts of light flicker and fade into the night sky. In Kotor, my visit was accompanied by a symphony of explosions. As evening fell upon the town, the series of propulsive blasts grew in number. Fireworks were the opposite of those smoke-filled cafes where Kotorians seemed to spend every waking moment of their free time. Relaxation at cafes and explosions in the streets. In the former smoke rose from cigarettes, whereas in the latter it burst forth from fireworks. My final experience of Kotor at the bus station was fitting, for this was a town all lit up for Orthodox Christmas. As the bus pulled away from the station I still heard muffled bursts, the backbeat of a national passion for pyrotechnics.

As I headed further south along the coast, I wondered what might be in store for me at the seaside port of Bar. I should have known by now that Bar would be bursting with life just like Kotor. The number of explosions increased in drama and frequency. As Christmas was but a few hours away, the reason for celebrating increased exponentially as did the explosions. Across the city I heard the same sounds that had followed me throughout Montenegro. Darkened streets would suddenly come to life with flashes of bright white light, a miraculous bit of incandescence that would suddenly disappear into the darkness. Above tree line the sky would suddenly be shattered. This was followed by a drizzle of tracer fire that rained down upon the empty streets. The thundering booms a statement of national exuberance.

The Balkans – A World Lit Only By Fireworks
Hours later, Christmas Day dawned with a reverential silence. As I made my way to the train station for the famed Bar to Belgrade express, there was nothing but quiet. I was leaving Montenegro, that frivolous war zone of fireworks. A half day later, I crossed the border into Serbia. Not long thereafter I made the acquaintance of a young Serb from the border town of Priboj. When I mentioned my surprise at seeing him traveling back to Belgrade on Christmas, he told me that university classes started again the next day. He then decided to show me how his town of 20,000 had celebrated Christmas. Using his phone, he proceeded to show me a video of the town’s Orthodox Cathedral rendered nearly imperceptible by a miraculous display of smoke and fire. Here once again was the Balkans, a world lit only by fireworks.

Click here for: Short Fuses In Kotor & Bar – Implosions & Explosions In The Balkans (A Balkan Affair #16)

Off-Seasons Greetings in Kotor – Tinder Box: Implosions & Explosions In The Balkans (A Balkan Affair #15)

Alarmed or puzzled! These are apt descriptions of the looks people give me when I mention my plans to travel around the Balkans. The Balkans at its worst conjures up stereotypical images of warfare, ethnic cleansing, ancient hatreds and byzantine blood feuds that no outsider could possibly understand, but which could catch an innocent bystander in the crossfire. The Balkans of blood lust is much more foreign to me, than I am to the region. The Balkans I know is a place of warm-hearted people, laid back attitudes, rich history, spectacular scenery and sumptuous food. Nevertheless, I have heard enough negativity to put me a bit on edge any time I travel to the region.

What I often discover is that the most dangerous part of traveling in the Balkans has almost nothing to do with any of those stereotypical maladies used by the western world to define it. Paradoxically, the most dangerous part of traveling in the Balkans for me occurs the minute I get on the road. This is always by bus or taxi. I have experienced a few close calls, but never enough to dissuade me from traveling in the region. And that includes a rather bizarre series of events at the Kotor Bus Station which involved mechanical failure, multiple explosions and a few locals acting generally insane.

Not so distant memories - Unrest in the Balkans

Not so distant memories – Unrest in the Balkans (Credit: eadaily)

Getting Busted – One of Those Days
The sign that it was going to be “one of those days” came first thing in the morning as I prepared to leave by bus from Kotor to Bar further down along the southern coast of Montenegro. Kotor’s bus station was quiet for a Monday morning. Orthodox Christmas was only two days away and it was the off-season so I did not expect to find a crowd, but the bus station was close to deserted when I first arrived. Only a few people straggled in for the 8:58 a.m. departure to Bar. When it looked like there would be only three other passengers I was overjoyed. Empty buses and train carriages have always been a personal source of great satisfaction. They allow me to feel as though I am getting chauffeured around the countryside at no extra cost. My dream of lounging about the bus and seat hopping to take photos of the Adriatic was about to come true. That was until the driver began looking beneath the bus. The bus had come from further up the coast and looked to be in fine working order. The opposite turned out to be true.

The bus driver started out not by taking tickets, but instead he spent a great deal of time looking under the bus. I soon joined him looking for signs of a leak. Everything seemed fine to me probably because I wanted it to. Meanwhile, the driver pulled out his phone to make a call. He walked off to an area where he could be by himself. It was obvious by his animated talk that something was wrong. After the call ended, I approached the driver to ask if we were still going to Bar. He said the bus had a problem. It could not be driven until a mechanic came to work on it. I would have to take the next bus instead. I did not want to take no for an answer mainly because I am incredibly obsessed with departing and arriving on time, especially when it involves an empty bus.

I pressed the issue, asking the driver twice to tell me the specific problem. He refused to divulge any details. This was a good ploy on his part, since I do not know anything about buses and mechanical problems. Not to mention the fact that I would not trust any bus driver who would take advice from me on mechanical issues. Offering no explanation about the bus, the driver did tell me that I could use my ticket for the next bus. He then disappeared into the station.

An Explosive Situation - Kotor Bus Station

An Explosive Situation – Kotor Bus Station

The Red Beret – Coming Under Fire
About this time a hatchback car pulled into the station. The hatch was open with a five-foot long piece of a tree hanging halfway out the back. Suddenly an earsplitting boom echoed throughout the terminal. It was amplified by the enclosed area around the bus platform. I had heard the same boom a few minutes earlier while purchasing food at the small shop in the bus terminal. When I asked the clerk behind the counter about the boom, she responded with indifference, “oh that happens a lot around here.” I soon discovered that her remark was a serious understatement. The arrival of the hatchback and its driver was accompanied by a succession of booms. Soon the driver appeared, grinning ear to ear. He was wearing a Red Beret (which will be nom de guerre for purposes of this story) and a camouflage jacket.

It soon became apparent that this man was setting off fireworks. Each time one exploded he would start grinning from ear to ear. It was not long before he was shaking hands and exchanging hugs with several others who worked at the station. He went back to his car where he grabbed the tree and proceeded to carry it into the station. All the while, there were more booms. These were courtesy of a man who minutes earlier was laughing it up with the Red Beret. Booms soon followed in rapid succession to the point that it felt like we were under artillery fire. Meanwhile, the ticket seller came out of the station with a small piece of the tree in his hand. I divined that the tree was part of some Christmas tradition. The fireworks might be as well.

Exploding Forth – The Balkan Bus Station War
When the Red Beret left, the booms continued with alarming frequency. It felt like another Balkan War had broken out at the Kotor Bus Station. Montenegro had largely sidestepped the Yugoslav Wars. Perhaps the men I saw were trying to start one of their own. Oddly enough, only one prospective passenger complained. An old man started chiding another man who had received from fireworks from the Red Beret and was now proceeding to join the fun. Rather than cease and desist his activity the new firework thrower decided to help the old man and a woman with him find their bus. Then this Janus-faced, erstwhile Good Samaritan started lighting more fireworks. Soon he tossed one within a foot or two of an unsuspecting man who was enjoying a smoke. The firework proceeded to detonate extremely close to the man. What would this man do? I prepared to see a fight. This was the Balkans after all.

Click here for: Short Fuses In Kotor & Bar–  Implosions & Explosions in the Balkans  (A Balkan Affair #16)

A Little Bit of Venice, A Whole Lot of Wealth – Perast: On A Strait Path (A Balkan Affair #14)

It was two days before Orthodox Christmas, not to mention a Sunday. Kotor was as close to a ghost town as it would probably ever get. Locals were scarce, tourists even more so. Montenegrins were home with their families, sipping coffee and catching up on conversation. The handful of tourists I had crossed paths with were probably going to sleep the day away. This did not bode well for finding public transport from Kotor to Perast. I realized this while standing on a windblown strip of sidewalk for almost an hour while waiting on a local bus that never arrived.

The entire time an angry, cold wind whipped off the nearby bay and blew right through to my bones. At one point a man who looked rougher than the rocks that soared behind the Old Town, walked up to me and attempted to ask what time the bus would arrive. I pointed at the time on my phone. This elicited a look of irritation. He then said something about needing the bus to get to work. He must not have needed it too bad, since he disappeared in 15 minutes and never came back. I began to grow skeptical that the bus would ever arrive. Thus, I walked back to my accommodation where the proprietor arranged for a taxi to take me to Perast.

An Ideal Image - Waterfront road through Perast

An Ideal Image – Waterfront road through Perast

Geography Defines History – A Place In The Sun
His name was Petar, he had a huge nose, wore sunglasses and looked like he had managed to stay calm every day of his entire life. He only spoke scattershot English, but for the most part we were able to understand each other. Enough so that I could learn a few things about him. Petar was from Niksic, where he said the economy revolved around breweries and bauxite mines. He now lived in Kotor, driving a taxi he did not own. Nonetheless, he was making a better living here shunting tourists around, than he could back in Niksic. Petar treated all my questions the same way he treated driving, with utter indifference. He seemed not to care about much of anything. I found his attitude strangely admirable. The most animated he became was when he pointed at some fishing platforms where large nets were cast in better weather. Our conversation was tepid, but it hardly mattered since the scenery was spectacular. Mountains rose several thousand meters up into the sky from both sides of the bay. White caps appeared and dissipated with ferocious rapidity as the wind blew the water white and black.

Before long Petar stoically announced “Perast”. We turned off the main road and were soon speeding along the waterfront past multi-storied stone buildings that looked as though they had been standing here forever. Petar stopped in front of a square to let me out. We agreed that he would return for the pickup in three hours. I immediately saw a historical information plaque that gave some details of Perast’s rich history. I later learned much more from guidebooks. Perast was one of those places that punched above its weight historically. An astonishing feat for what amounted to a bayside village that never held more than 1,643 people. Geography was decisive in Perast’s history as it overlooked the narrowest point guarding the Veringe Channel between the Bay of Risonal and the Bay of Kotor. Controlling this strait was of paramount importance to both the Venetians and Ottomans who vied for supremacy in the area for over four hundred years.

Reaching Towards The Sky - The Church of St. Nikola & Campanile in Perast

Reaching Towards The Sky – The Church of St. Nikola & Campanile in Perast

Leading The Way – Rise Of A Naval Power
Perast was lucky enough to fall under the sway of the Venetian Republic. That waterborne empire found Perast to be of great use to it, both for seamen and seafaring. At one point, Perast had four shipyards building a variety of watercraft as well as a naval school that helped educate some of the best sailors in European history. It was Perastians who provided the expert navigators who helped propel the Venetian side to victory against the Ottomans at one of the most famous naval battles in world history, at Lepanto in 1571. Such exploits led to Perastians being given the honor of protecting the Venetian standard during battle. Perast also achieved lasting fame when Peter the Great of Russia sent his future naval leaders to its maritime school. The exchange was two way as Perast supplied admirals that helped Russia win control of the Baltic Sea. One of these was Matija Zmajevic, who led a trifecta of victories over the Swedes.

Perast’s naval exploits brought it fortune along with fame. This can still be seen today in the Gothic palaces that line the waterfront. At one point there were 20 palaces in Perast. Those still standing evoke the regal architecture that Venetian rule bequeathed on the town. Constructed from limestone and worn by centuries of radiant sunshine and sea spray, these stone edifices allowed the great families of Perast to look directly out onto the water. It was an enchanting prospect, that must have heartened many a family member who saw their loved one sailing safely into harbor.

Dream in Blue - View from Perast

Dream in Blue – View from Perast

The Course of Empire – Wind, Water & Stone
The most important port of call for me was a striking piece of architecture that shot skyward. The unfinished Church of Saint Nikola, with its 55 meter high campanile rising over the town, drew my eye upward. For many years, it was the tallest structure along the eastern Adriatic’s shoreline. The campanile was magnificent, but my efforts to get inside the tower and church were in vain. There would not have been much to see anyway. Only an apse and the campanile were ever completed. They came at a cost of some 200 kg worth of gold. Wealth was not lacking in Perast. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about the finishing touch. My enduring memories of Perast will forever consist of wind, water and stone. I got my fill of all three of these in just three hours. The entire town seemed to be made of stone whether it was stairs, arches, alleyways or palaces.

A cold wind howled off the water, throwing up waves and warning anyone foolish enough to contemplate a voyage to the famed islands of St. George and Our Lady of the Rocks. I knew better than to even think about it. I had Perast largely to myself. There was nothing left to do except walk the empty streets, imagining how much and how little had changed in Perast since the late 18th century. The Venetian Republic was no more, but the power and privilege it afforded this small town could still be detected. Perast had helped sustain an empire and in the process sustained itself right up to the present day.

Click here for: Off-Seasons Greetings in Kotor – Tinder Box: Implosions & Explosions In The Balkans (A Balkan Affair #15)

Death Is Not The End – Scepan The Short & Saint Tryphon In Montenegro (A Balkan Affair #13)

One of the great things about my Balkan adventure was the dead people I got to meet. As you might imagine these were not ordinary people. As such, meeting them was quite an extraordinary experience, especially considering that I did not even know who one of them was during my visit to Montenegro. While the other one was locked away in a church crypt that I had no way of accessing. Obviously, I have no aptitude for communicating with spirits of long deceased individuals other than through the printed word. Thus, our only medium for contact was through research and reading. This was how they were resurrected in my mind. Discovering these dead people meant they had to first appear in printed form.

Facts and stories substituted for flesh and bone. In fact, they only came to me after I got back home. By that time, I was over 5,000 kilometers away from Montenegro and the dead were even further away from me in both space and time. The place that gave the dead fame, infamy and sanctity was now centuries removed from their exploits, but they still loomed large in the legend, lore, hopes and prayers of Montenegrins. The two dead people I met were Scepan the Short (Scepan Mali) and Saint Tryphon (Tryphon of Campsada). They came to me for the first time through the pages of old travel guides and history books, but without my visits to Budva and Kotor I would never have stumbled upon them after the fact or at all.

A Hero Of His Time - Scepan The Short

A Hero Of His Time – Scepan The Short

Rumor Has It – Timing Is Everything
To say that Scepan the Short suddenly appeared on the historical stage in Montenegro is an understatement. The story of his rise to prominence is so improbable that it sounds more like a work of fiction, rather than one of history. And how could it be otherwise? Scepan’s origins are murky at best. No one knows for sure exactly where Scepan came from. Historian’s best guesses are either Bosnia or Dalmatia. After arriving in Montenegro during the mid-1760’s, he settled on the outskirts of Budva. Scepan then proceeded to begin selling herbs in the town and offering “medical” services. He was Montenegro’s version of the Old West’s snake oil salesman. The kind of person who can be found on the fringes of society.

Scepan’s profession did not stop a wild rumor from circulating that he was really Tsar Peter III of Russia. This of course seemed scarcely plausible since Peter III had been murdered by the brothers of his wife, Catherine the Great’s lover. Scepan did nothing to dispel the rumor, in fact he encouraged it. He was also the beneficiary of lucky timing since Montenegro was suffering from a renewed Ottoman assault on the country and famine had beset the land. The leader of Montenegro at the time, Vladika (Prince-Bishop) Sava was senile and ineffective. The powerful chieftains decided that Scepan was the best bet to carry out their desires. The upshot was Scepan gaining power. He soon had Sava imprisoned and set about ruling the country.

Once Scepan took power, I expected to learn that his tenure as leader was disastrous. Far from it, he managed to unite disparate clans, defeat both the Ottoman Turks and Venetians in separate engagements and rule Montenegro with a firm hand. He even went so far as to finally admit that he was not Tsar Peter III. The people forgave him for the lie because he was so well respected as a leader. The Ottomans feared Scepan to the point that the Vizier of Skodra plotted to have him murdered. In a spectacular act of betrayal, a turncoat Greek barber who had been sufficiently bribed, cut Scepan’s throat. Scepan’s reign, like his stature may have been short, but he was a wise and just ruler deserving of his unlikely place in Montenegrin history.

Strange Destiny - Saint Tryphon of Campsada

Strange Destiny – Saint Tryphon of Campsada

Heads Up – A Crypt Keeper
The other dead person whose acquaintance I made several weeks after my visit to Montenegro was Tryphon. The name will be familiar to anyone who has spent time within the walls of Kotor’s Old Town. St. Tryphon’s Cathedral is the most famous church in Kotor. The man whose name graces the cathedral is much less famous in the rest of the country. That is not surprising since Tryphon never came anywhere near Kotor, let alone Montenegro. How could he? The country did not exist when he lived during the first half of the 3rd century. Tryphon was born to humble circumstances in west-central Anatolia (present day Turkey). He was a goose herder until he became known for performing miracles that healed the suffering of others. His wonder working ways were aligned with his Christianity, which brought him to the notice of Roman officials in 250 AD during the persecution promulgated by the Emperor Decian.

After his arrest, Tryphon confessed his fervent Christianity. He was subsequently sentenced to death by the authorities who wanted to make an example out of him. Tryphon was then subjected to horrific tortures before the execution took place. Finally, Tryphon was beheaded. He was later venerated as a saint by both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. What did any of this have to do with Montenegro? In the year 890, a ship carrying a trove of relics to Europe stopped in Kotor. The townspeople contributed 300 gold pieces to purchase Tryphon’s head. It has stayed in Kotor ever since, eventually finding a place in Saint Tryphon’s Cathedral where it can still be seen in the crypt today. Unfortunately, I never found the church open during my visit. It would have been fascinating to see Tryphon’s head. It is not often that I get to meet the dead face to face.

Paying Respect - Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor

Paying Respect – Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor (Credit: Mhare)

Eternal Resting Place – The Pages Of History
I may not have known about Scepan the Short or the story of Tryphon’s head during my visit to Montenegro, but I felt lucky to have met them both through the pages of history. Their tales and travails were uniquely unforgettable. Both men enjoy an eternal fame, one that transcends time and place. In their end was their beginning. And in their stories, I found a new beginning that helped me rediscover a different side to Montenegro. The Old Towns of Budva & Kotor were splendid, but not nearly as splendid as those places where I met dead people.

Click here for:A Little Bit of Venice, A Whole Lot of Wealth – Perast: On A Strait Path (A Balkan Affair #14)